On a Path to Success at Clark Fork High
The school, nestled right in the center of the roughly two-block long ‘downtown’ of Clark Fork, is a modest one. Enrollment, which includes students from grades 7 through 12, has hovered around 120 for more than a decade and while the facilities are suitable, they’re certainly not ‘fancy.’ Nonetheless, within this unassuming building there are exciting things happening, and Clark Fork is well on its way to meeting its goal to become the premiere educational institution in the state of Idaho.
When principal Phil Kemink was hired 8 years ago to become the school’s newest administrator, it was his first job as a principal, and he’d never worked in such a small educational setting. Nonetheless, the fundamentals for success were there: a local community strongly committed to the success of the school, and an active and knowledgeable student body. Nonetheless it faced many of the struggles faced by small schools throughout the nation: never enough money, a crumbling physical plant, an aging teacher population with one eye on retirement, and no way to benefit from economies of scale.
A lot has changed since then. A lot.
Take the staff, for instance. The school has gone from having the most senior staff in the district, to having the most junior. It can be a blow to lose long-term teachers, rich in knowledge of their subject area and their students, but as staff members left, Kemink was able to replace them with teachers who made up for their newness to the job with excitement and enthusiasm. “I was able to hand pick people who play well with my personality,” Phil laughed. What he’s ended up with is “a very strong staff with a very strong work ethic;” one that, despite their differences, work as a cohesive unit toward providing their students with the best education possible.
The real tipping point for the school came, however, back in 2007, when the first students at Clark Fork received scholarships from the Hoyt and Edith Schuyler scholarship fund to send them on to college.
Edith (known as Edie), had arranged before she died to leave a half million dollars to the school for just this purpose. Each year, up to $15,000 is given out to support students as they seek to obtain higher education.
“That’s probably where it started,” Phil said when asked to pinpoint the time when Clark Fork’s growth began to take off. “Since Edie, people have been very generous to our school.”
Very generous might be an understated way of describing the support. An anonymous community resident—everyone knows who it is but no one will say for print—walked into Phil’s office one day and asked him for a ‘wish list’ of what was needed for the school. That wish list became a $100,000 donation. Yet another anonymous donor gave the school $30,000.
And it wasn’t just money, though most things come down to money in the end—the booster club took on an enormous project to raise the funds, and the labor, to build grandstands and an announcer’s tower for the football field, and the community at large has continued to vote in support of levies that put technology into classrooms, extracurricular programs on the schedule, and extra teachers in the classroom to make sure needs are met.
The school also became one of the first schools to participate in the state’s “Gear Up” program, designed to encourage students to continue their education after high school. Gear Up provides the funding for a part-time person who works with students to do just that. “This makes a huge difference,” Phil explained. “Students who don’t think of college as something that might be available to them, or who aren’t quite sure how to get there, are getting support in doing just that.”
As the school has steadily built on each improvement and achievement, the recognition has come. In 2011, for the fourth year in a row, they were named by U.S. News & World Reports as one of the top small schools in the nation. In the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are almost 25,000 secondary schools throughout the United States.
And the recognition continued just last month, when Clark Fork learned it was a winner of the Albertsons Foundation’s Go On Challenge—a victory that brought another $100,000 check along with it.
“We’re going to continue to support our students’ learning,” Phil said when asked how he would spend the money. “We can use these funds to help pay the fees for students to take dual credit courses.”
Yes, the fees. That “free and appropriate public education” we’re promised costs money, and the tab is not always picked up by the taxpayer. But the fees charged for greater learning can be an insurmountable barrier in an area where people simply are not wealthy. In the past, the school has come up with the money to pay student fees to take the SAT, and now they have funds to support students’ ability to take classes that the school simply cannot offer.
Although the staff, particularly counselor Tom Prez, “worked their butts off” to fill out the appropriate paperwork to be considered for the Albertsons award, they were still surprised when they received it.
“They awarded in three categories,” Phil said, “and we thought we had a chance in the category of students who take the SAT. But we actually won in this category, ‘Increased the number of students who completed advanced opportunities coursework in AP, Dual Credit and/or Tech Prep.’ It was a surprise, but one we’re proud of.”
This year, 55 schools competed in the Albertson’s Go On Challenge, and 8, including Clark Fork, received awards. “When I heard about this, I said, ‘Let’s go big.’ This school already has a culture of going on to college, so why not enter?” It’s a choice he’s glad now that was made.
So what’s the secret behind Clark Fork’s continued achievements? It’s true that success tends to breed success, but there must be a foundation under that. To Phil, that foundation is his staff, and the commitment they’ve made to student achievement.
“A small school gives you a unique opportunity to know every single kid, to know their grades and what they’re doing,” he said. “You’re a principal, but in some ways you’re also a parent. That’s why I was able to call all the boys into the gym this morning and yell at them about clogging the toilets,” he said. “We work to teach them to take responsibility for their choices. If you screw up, you fix it. If you make a mess, you have to clean it up. We’re teaching life lessons here.”
And that’s true for academics, as well.
Indeed, each student at the school is required to bring in a progress report to the principal each week so that he knows exactly where they’re at, and can respond when trouble rears its head.
“Every student is individually monitored here,” said teacher Mike Turnlund. (Yes, the same Mike Turnlund who writes about birds every month in these pages.) “The response (to a problem) is immediate.”
That response might include some time in the Joe Dirt Club, a program the school set up to provide individual tutoring to students. “We’re all on the same page here,” said Mike, and that page is for students to succeed.
Although the school has come far, their goal is set firmly in the future: to be the most unique and sought after school campus around.
There’s an entrepreneurship class where kids perform community service (shoveling snow hasn’t been high on the agenda this year). Turnlund is developing an online course in the History of English that can be taken by students at the school. And teacher Brian Powell is once again leading students into a school-based business with Bonner County Cut-Outs (see sidebar). As for Phil, he’s determined to build a community golf course on land the school owns.
“We throw our heart and soul into everything we do here,” he said.
A Small School's Small Business
You can think of it as a “Groupon” for Bonner County. Clark Fork’s newest small business endeavor, Bonner County Cut-Outs (www.bonnercountycut-outs.com. Don’t forget the hyphen.) is a website where local businesses can offer coupons to local customers. Students are responsible for selling businesses the coupon ads, designing those ads, maintaining the books, and keeping up the website.
“The website still needs a lot of work,” said teacher Brian Powell, “and we have some difficulties in getting students into Sandpoint to sell the coupons for the site, but we’re a work in progress.”
Businesses interested in participating in the Cut-Outs coupon program can call the class at 208-255-7373 or send an email to bonnercountycutouts(at)hotmail.com (that one doesn’t have the hyphen).
If you’re a resident interested in a good deal, just visit the website and print out the coupons. If you have a smart phone, you can even shoot a picture of the coupon and present it at the store.
Currently, you can get coupons for clothing, meals, flowers, recreation, massages, tanning, photography, meals and groceries.
Photo, below - the Bonner County Cut-Outs “staff” on a rare trip into Sandpoint to sell advertising.